Carolyn Gritzmaker Indian Trail Master Naturalist
The elf owl(Micrathene whitneyi) is not a bird you will find in Ellis and Navarro counties, but after seeing this delightful little owl during a recent camping trip at Big Bend National Park, I couldn’t resist writing about it.
Elf Owl. Its very name captures the imagination. At 5 ¾ inches, this tiny owl is no larger than the common house sparrow. It is found in desert lowlands and canyons, and in Texas the elf owl is found only in the Big Bend area and a small part of the lower Rio Grande Valley. A summer resident, it usually arrives in the Big Bend in late March or early April. Since our camping trip coincided with the bird’s arrival, it was number one on the list of birds I most wanted to see. As it turned out, it was one of the easiest to find.
Our first night in the park we heard the elf owls calling. To me they sound a little like the call of the yellowlegs(Totanus melanoleucus), but with an irregular series of chirps. What a nice welcome to the park!
Visiting the Big Bend in April is almost like going to a naturalists’ convention. So many people are there to see the birds, the cactus and wildflowers. On our second day, as we stood watching a pair of vermillion flycatchers, a car stopped and the first thing we were asked was, “What have you got?” Obviously they were birders in hot pursuit. As we compared notes on our sightings for the day, they told us where we might see the elf owls in camp. A pair had been seen visiting an old woodpecker hole at dusk.
I’m sure we were quite a spectacle to the uninitiated campers at Rio Grande Village. Most nights, just before dusk, birders would begin to gather around the telephone pole where the hole was located and await the elf owl’s appearance. We made quite a crowd on this particular night, perhaps 15 or 20, all talking quietly and gazing expectantly up at that hole. We received quite a few curious looks from other campers. As it happened, the telephone pole was located next to the washrooms, and one curious young man asked in jest if someone was being held hostage in the men’s room.
Then, as if on cue, and just as it was almost too dark to see, we heard the owls calling. First one, then the other flew to the hole in the post. They weren’t nesting at the time, but it appeared they had chosen that location to do so. After a couple of minutes one owl left, and the other sat at the opening and scolded us. Finally it became too dark to see, and the crowd slowly dispersed.
That was the only time we saw the tiny elf owls, but we could often hear them calling late at night. Soft little calls, singing us to sleep.